The first time, I was young.
I don’t remember my exact age, but I was a kid–probably around 5 or 6. I was at a friend’s house, playing with girl about the same age as me. We were acting out our favorite TV show, Saved by the Bell.
She was having a hard time choosing who to be: Kelly Kapowski (the beautiful cheerleader) or Jessie Spano (the super smart class president).
My choice was already made for me. I’d be Lisa Turtle, the rich fashionista.
Not because I was rich. Not because I enjoyed fashion.
I would be Lisa because I was Black, and Lisa was Black. Plain and simple.
Honestly, I identified more with Jessie–I loved to learn and I admired her passion for issues like saving the environment. I liked how she always said what she thought and worked hard to be the best. But I couldn’t be Jessie because we weren’t the same color.
I didn’t really think of it as racism at the time because, as a said before, I was a kid. But looking back I see how I was put in a box because of my skin color.
The second time hit a little harder.
Once again, I don’t remember my exact age. But I was still a kid. I was riding the bus to school, and an older boy kept trying to get my attention. He kept calling me a racial slur (one that I will not type here).
Yes, I told the bus driver. No, she didn’t do anything.
I got called this slur EVERY DAY until the boy got his driver’s license and stopped taking the bus.
The first day I got on the bus and he wasn’t there, I felt a trickle of relief. By the end of the week, I realized he wasn’t coming back. The trickle turned to a flood. Finally, I could ride the bus in peace and quiet.
What’s that saying? “Third time’s a charm…”
This one I remember in great detail. I was in sixth grade, in Ms. White’s classroom. It was almost time for school to be dismissed, and we had to be sitting at our desks when the bell rang before Ms. White would let us leave her classroom.
I was kneeling on the floor beside my desk, picking up all my papers and books. I wasn’t dawdling–I was putting stuff in my bag as fast as I could. But there was so much stuff.
The bell rang and I wasn’t in my seat. No one could leave until I sat down. I stood, then moved to sit down at my desk. That was when I heard it.
“Hurry up, BLACKIE!”
It came from a white boy I only knew in passing–his name was Jesse. I don’t remember ever speaking to this boy–before or after this incident–but I can see his face in my mind’s eye as clear as day.
I froze where I stood. All hopes of sitting down were gone–I couldn’t move. I just stared at him.
Ms. White made Jesse apologize to me–a quick “sorry” that was clearly more about getting to the bus line than giving an authentic apology. Ms. White released the class, and I shot out of that classroom with tears running down my face.
I was practically running to get to the bus, crying. Someone–I can’t remember who–asked what was wrong as I flew past.
I can’t even remember if I told my mom what happened.
It happened over and over again, and got more humiliating each time.
In high school, it poured rain on the day of a band competition. I was in the colorguard, wearing a hairstyle that required a lot of hold. Pump It Up spritz was the go-to product to keep my hair in place. (If you’re a Black woman reading this, you’re probably nodding in agreement right now. Pump It Up is an old school Black hair staple, right there next to Luster’s Pink Oil Lotion and my aunt’s favorite, Blue Magic scalp conditioner.)
“Ewwwwwww, what is that smell?!?“
Apparently, Pump It Up + rain water = a slightly unpleasant aroma. And another guard member was LOUDLY letting everyone know about it. I just tried to stay as far away from everyone as I could. Not only was the hairstyle that took an ENTIRE DAY ruined, my day was too. I felt like such a freak, even though the white girls back then would use so much gel and hairspray they reeked of aerosol.
It presented itself so often, in so many different ways.
My worst experience with racism to date didn’t even happen in America. That’s why it’s the worst time–I didn’t see it coming.
I was in Denmark for a work trip, staying for two weeks. It was January, so the days were short and dark and cold there, but I was so excited. I’d never been to Europe before, and here I was–traveling abroad for business! I felt so fancy.
The first week passed without incident. There were a few snags with my work project, but I powered through them. Then the weekend came and everything changed.
I went out to dinner with a co-worker. We went to a fancy place and ate a meal with, like, seven different courses. We talked and laughed and enjoyed the delicious food and generally had a fantastic time. We took a car back to our hotel, and I headed to my room after a quick goodbye near the hotel lobby. Shortly after I got back to my room, I got a text from my co-worker. The man working the front desk said I couldn’t stay at the hotel.
He thought I was a prostitute.
I went back to that front desk, room key in hand. I explained that I’d been in the hotel for an entire week and hadn’t had any problems until today. I asked that man if he would have made the same assumption if I was a white lady.
He said NO. Had I been a different color, he wouldn’t have given me a second thought.
It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.
I wish I could say those were the only times.
But there are so many moments I’ve left out.
The “You’re so pretty for a Black girl,” moments.
The time a classmate said it wasn’t fair I got a full scholarship to college because I was Black (even thought I was in honors classes and my grades were higher than hers).
The “You’re not like other those Black people–you’re one of the good ones,” moments.
The time a former coworker “complimented” me by putting both of her hands wrist deep in my fresh kinky twists–without my permission, of course.
The “I’m sorry, we don’t have makeup in your shade,” moments.
The time a boy I had a crush on in high school told me he couldn’t be racist because he’d kissed me once. (This was years after the kiss, on a Facebook post about police brutality.)
The “You’re so articulate,” moments.
The time a judge at a speech tournament wrote me a ballot explaining that I shouldn’t just do pieces on Blackness–that I was “better than that.“
The “I don’t even think of you as Black,” moments.
The time I competed in a local beauty pageant and won Miss Congeniality, but I wasn’t included in the photograph that ran in the paper.
The time I drove past the fairgrounds in my hometown and saw signs stating “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” and learned just whose lives clearly didn’t matter.
The time I had dinner at my high school boyfriend’s house and his father refused to speak to me. Seriously–the man didn’t say a single word to me the entire time I was there. He spoke to everyone else, but not to me.
The time I got pulled over late at night in my new car. Terror isn’t the word–it was worse than that. Thank God I hadn’t been drinking, had all of my paperwork, and had the wherewithal to put on my most “articulate” voice for the officer.
Every single time I change my hair and people at work say they can’t recognize me–even if it’s just a switch from curly to straight. (And it happens EVERY SINGLE TIME.)
It’s exhausting. It’s infuriating. And, unfortunately, it’s a regular part of my life.
If you read this and realized that someone you know has said or done something like this in the past, I hope you’re horrified. If you read this and realized YOU’VE said or done something similar in the past, I hope you are filled with shame. I hope you look back over your life and recognize every single racist thing you’ve been part of. I hope you cry.
And after all that, I hope you make a promise to do better.
I hope you realize you aren’t a bad person, but that you have some learning (and maybe more importantly, un-learning) to do. I hope you read up on how America has disenfranchised Black people since we were stolen and brought here. I hope you advocate for Black people with your time, energy, money, resources, and especially YOUR VOTES.
I hope you check your racist family members and friends–don’t let those jokes or comments slide. I hope you support reparations for descendants of slavery. I hope you protest for us and with us. I hope you stop saying you’re “colorblind” and start saying “I see your color, but I don’t devalue you because of it.”
I hope you take a look at your life, now that you’ve seen some of the uglier parts of mine.